For Memorial Day, I wanted to take a look at my ancestors and see just how many served our country, or the colonies that would become our country. I was surprised, and a bit overwhelmed, to discover just how many veterans I have for ancestors.
“Our fallen heroes are the reason we live in a privileged nation where we get to sleep safely and soundly in our beds every night. This is one of many reasons they deserve this one day to remember their service and sacrifice.”
Seana Arrechaga, widow of SFC Ofren Arrechaga, killed in the line of duty, March 29, 2011, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, just days before the end of his tour of duty.
When I was young, I thought of Memorial Day as the gateway to summer, and Labor Day as the gate on the other end. Of course, Memorial Day in Indiana was associated with the end of the school year, always a happy occasion, picnics and the Indy 500 Race. It wasn’t until I got older, much older, that I realized the significance of this day. That’s odd, in a very strange way, given that I have the triangle shaped flag from my own father’s coffin. I just never knew or understood its significance…that is…until Vietnam.
I still, to this day, cannot talk about the human losses in and due to Vietnam. Our men came home, if at all, so broken and to an unsupportive, even hostile, country. Mental and physical illnesses have plagued them in the decades since, and along with them, their parents, wives and families. Not all died in Vietnam. Many died years later from the scars inflicted upon them in Vietnam – both physical and mental.
Perhaps Vietnam was no different from any other war – it’s just that Vietnam was the war I witnessed. Boys going to the recruitment center, proud to enlist, returning months or years later as men, broken and ravaged by an invisible disease, nightmares that woke them screaming from what used to be peaceful sleep, and horrors the rest of us can’t begin to imagine.
I knew Greg growing up, before we dated and married. After he returned from Vietnam, he found a job and tried to pretend all was well, but the mental demons would consume him, inch by inch, day by day, month by month, year by year – until he was gone.
I found a photograph in my former husband’s belongings that explained it all. It was a picture of him and two other men in military fatigues in Vietnam, eating lunch sitting in the front bucket of a bulldozer. Then I looked closer. The piles waiting to be bulldozed were human corpses, stacked like cordwood. It is any wonder mental illness consumed him and stole his life?
Then I understood why he hated returning to active duty from leave. It didn’t have so much to do with what he was leaving as what he was returning to. What few stories he told me were utterly horrific. Mostly he didn’t talk about his time in service in the Army’s Green Beret unit. He never discussed it while it relentlessly ate him alive. There was no escaping. Yet, he was proud to serve his country.
He is the first veteran to honor.
This picture was taken one Christmas in happier times.
The second veteran is my brother, David Estes, a Marine, shot down as a tail gunner, injured and contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion in Saigon. Yes, it took him 27 years, but he too succumbed to his injuries.
William Sterling Estes
My own father, William Sterling Estes, served three tours in the Army as well, in both WWI and WWII, and he too was injured. At one point, either during or after his service, he worked at Oak Ridge, TN, on “the bomb,” and he was just never right again. Alcohol consumed his life. He died in an automobile accident that we believe was suicide after what would be his final relapse.
John Y. Estes
My father’s great-grandfather, John Y. Estes, was a Confederate prisoner of war during the Civil War, captured after he was injured and eventually released north of the Ohio River to make his way back to Claiborne County, TN, as best he could.
John R. Estes
John Y. Estes’ father, John R. Estes, served in the War of 1812 out of Halifax County, VA.
John R. Estes’ father, George Estes, served three tours of duty in the Revolutionary War, two in Virginia and one in what would become Eastern Tennessee.
George Estes’ grand-father, Moses Estes, served in the French and Indian War in Amelia County, Virginia.
Henry Bolton, my great-great-great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary War in Maryland and may have looked after George Washington’s horse.
William Herrell, my great-great-grandfather served in the War of 1812, walking from Tennessee to Fort Williams in Alabama, and back. He called this the “War with the Creek Indians.”
Samuel Claxton or Clarkson
Samuel Claxton, my great-great-grandfather served as a Union soldier in the Civil War, contracted tuberculosis, never recovered and died after the war.
William McNiel, my 4th great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary War from Spotsylvania County, Virginia and fought at the Battle of Brandywine.
Reverend George McNiel
William’s father, the Reverend George McNiel served in the Revolutionary War at the Battle of King’s Mountain, even though he was in his 60s at the time.
John Francis Vannoy
John Francis Vannoy, my 5th great-grandfather, may have served in the French and Indian War.
William Crumley Sr.
William Crumley Sr., my 5th great-grandfather, provided supplies for the Revolutionary Army, gathering supplies in Frederick County, Virginia, and submitted a Publik Service claim.
Edward Mercer, my 6th great-grandfather, father-in-law of William Crumley Sr., fought with George Washington and was defeated at the Battle of Fort Necessity in 1754, during the French and Indian War.
My 5th great-grandfather, Marcus Younger, provided brandy and other supplies in King and Queen County, Virginia during the Revolutionary War.
My 4th great-grandfather Lazarus Dodson, served in the Revolutionary War, in the same unit with George Estes in what was then North Carolina, but later became Tennessee. Their grandchildren would marry in Tennessee. Their descendants are shown below at the celebration honoring Lazarus by setting his gravestone.
Lazarus’s father Raleigh Dodson, may also have served in the Revolutionary War. His name is on the same roster.
My 5th great-grandfather Jacob Dobkins served in the Revolutionary War as a scout. He is believed to have participated in the Battle of King’s Mountain as well.
William Herrell’s father, John Harrold, my 4th great-grandfather, served two terms in the Revolutionary War out of Botetourt County, Virginia serving in Virginia and North Carolina.
My 4th great-grandfather Michael McDowell served three tours of duty in the Revolutionary War out of Bedford County, VA.
James Lee Clarkson/Claxton
James Lee Clarkson/Claxton, my 4th great-grandfather, served in the War of 1812 and died in service in Alabama at Fort Decatur. He was buried outside the fort, but his grave has been lost to time.
Nicholas Speak, my 4th great-grandfather, fought in the War of 1812.
Joseph Workman, my 5th great-grandfather, served in the French and Indian War.
Col. Robert Craven
Col. Robert Craven, my 6th great-grandfather, served in the French and Indian War.
My 6th great-grandfather, Abraham Workman, served in the French and Indian War.
Charles Beckwith Speak
Charles Beckwith Speak, my 4th great-grandfather, served in the Revolutionary War in the militia in Maryland.
Gideon Faires, my 5th great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary War.
Samuel Muncy served in 1774 on the frontier in Moore’s Fort in what is now Lee or Scott County, VA.
On my mother’s side of the family, there are fewer men who served to defend the US or the colonies, in part because many of her ancestors immigrated recently, in the 1800s, from both the Netherlands and Germany.
Some of my mother’s ancestors were Brethren, a pietist religion, opposed to warfare or violence in any format, to the point they would not defend their own family against attack.
One of mother’s lines was Acadian, so spent their lives in Canada, not the US.
Joseph Hill, my great-great-great-grandfather may have served in the War of 1812 from Vermont. There were two Joseph Hills and we have been unable to verify his service.
Joseph Hill’s father, John Hill served in the Revolutionary War from New Hampshire.
John Drew, my 6th great-grandfather, was a Sergeant in the military organization of New Hampshire in the 1600s.
Capt. Samuel Mitchell
Capt. Samuel Mitchell, my 5th great-grandfather, served in Maine in the 1600s.
Stephen Hopkins, my 11th great-grandfather, served at Jamestown, returned to England, then sailed on the Mayflower and served in the Plymouth colony.
Many men’s names are omitted from this list, not intentionally, but often due to lack of records. The Revolutionary War was the first war that offered land as pay, or land as a benefit of service, as well as both veterans’ and widows’ pensions. Therefore, service records become critically important.
In the previous wars, specifically the French and Indian War, the only records we have are county records if the soldiers happened to be recorded.
During this timeframe, and earlier, all men were expected to serve in the local militia which functioned to protect the community as well as serve on the frontier to defend the region, if called upon. Therefore, we can assume that all men prior to the Revolutionary War did in fact serve in some capacity in their local militia and community. Did they see warfare defending the frontier? Perhaps, but we’ll never have that documentation because in most cases, there are no lists of militia members, nor records of what types of activities the militia was engaged in, aside from regular drills and practice.
In many cases, we don’t know when, why or how men died, so we don’t know if they died in the service of their country, as a result of that service, or of some unrelated cause.
For all of my ancestors whose service goes unmentioned, my apologies, but more importantly, my sincere thank you. Without those hearty men who all served as a normal part of their citizenship, we would not be here today as a nation. And thank you to the wives, left at home with the children who persevered and carried on, doing both the man’s and woman’s work while the husband was gone.
I am honored to carry the history of such a long list of patriots, stretching from Jamestown and the Mayflower to my brother and father.
My son, while not serving in the military, serves as a public safety officer, providing both fire and police protection for his community, risking his life daily to do so – and has for more than 20 years.
Thank you, one and all, for your service.
Have a great Memorial Day weekend, but don’t forget who made it possible and those in active service today who keep it possible. Many are unable to celebrate with their families this weekend either because they made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, they are currently deployed or because they are working to protect the rest of us.
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You can be so proud of your ancestors at this special time when we remember those who gave their lives for our country and for those who served. My husband served in the Korean War. He rarely speaks of what he saw and experienced.
Here in Great Britain we started commemorating our involvement in WWI from 1914 to 1918 back in 2014, and the commemorations will continue for a whole four years, with each major battle and campaign being remembered on its anniversary.
Right now we are remembering the Battle of Jutland on 31st May – 1st June 1916, the greatest naval battle of WWI, when the German High Seas Fleet squared up to the numerically superior British Grand Fleet in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark. Things went very badly for the British in the early stages, two battleships sunk with the loss of several thousand sailors, prompting the commander of the battle-cruiser squadron, Vice-Admiral Sir David Beaty, to exclaim in frustration, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!”
Thirty-six hours later when the smoke of battle cleared, the Royal Navy had lost 14 ships with over 6,000 men killed, and the Germans had lost 11 ships and over 2,500 men. Both sides claimed victory (of course!), but when the British fleet limped into Rosyth dockyard in my native county of Fife, north of Edinburgh, for essential repairs, the dockyard workers at first downed tools and refused to touch them, having heard a false rumour that the British ships had turned tail and fled.
Despite the huge losses for Great Britain, the battle achieved its desired outcome, as for the remainder of the war the High Seas fleet stayed at its moorings in Wilhelmshaven and never again posed a threat to the British. Instead, the German U-boat fleet took on the job of trying to blockade us and starve us into submission. Their sinking of the “Lusitania” in the Atlantic was a very bad move because it had the effect of bringing the U.S.A. into the war with decisive consequences for the outcome of the war.
Interest in genealogy is one expression of the desire we all seem to have to know and honor our ancestors. It is right and natural for us to believe they were loving, caring, and giving human beings dedicated to family and country. Yet we must recognize and accept that they were not infallible human beings; they may have had views and conducted themselves in ways that we find objectionable or even abhorrent by current moral standards.
I am fortunate to be able to trace my paternal ancestry to Colonial Virginia. My ancestors served when called in peacetime and in wars. My 3rd-great grandfather served during the Revolutionary War, and my 2nd great-grandfather served as a militiaman in the War of 1812. Their sons joined the fight during the American Civil War as Confederate soldiers. Records show that in all these generations my ancestors owned human property. In each generation they fought for their beliefs, likely feeling that slavery was morally just and their right. I can honor their courage, valor, sense of duty, and commitment to family. I cannot honor the role they played in perpetuating the unjust institution of slavery. The lives of their near descendants are also stained by acts of racial bigotry. Oh, I wish I could say what great men and women my ancestors were, commendable in every way. But my duty is to recognize and record the facts within my family’s history as they are, even when discomforting and impossible to rationalize.
Great piece. Thank you
Your mention of militia is important. Many British were in the militia(“fencibles”) during the Napoleonic wars, and some served in areas of rebellion, and some later volunteered for service overseas. Some records exist, but few think to look for them.
More recently, we tend to forget those who signed up and died in training or during support roles such as stores. My local cemetery has a large military section full of such people, who never saw action, but died in service nevertheless.
My uncle Robert Watson joined the Black Watch in 1915, caught a chill while on manouevres and was invalided home where he died a few days later. He was given a full military funeral. A few days before he died his unit left for France and the Western Front, where many were to fall.
Thank you for such a wonderful article. You have made clear the true costs of war. My prayers for you and your family.
I really enjoyed reading about all your family and ancestors that fought for our nation and soon to be nation. It makes me want to create something similar. I have only been tracing my family tree for about 3 years and have been so surprised to find so many ancestors who served in so many wars. I really enjoy your Blog and look forward to the e-mail in my in basket every Monday.